Smoke Gets in My Eyes… and Lungs… and Brain…

wood stove
Wood stove by Paul Johnson.

There was a certain irony in my recent post about Paul Johnson’s talk, since one of the photos included a beautifully crafted paper rendition of a wood stove that was part of one of Paul’s books.

I haven’t yet mentioned this here, but an increasingly large part of my life lately has been, and is, devoted to anti-wood smoke activism. Humboldt County has always been a smoky place. But it has gotten noticeably worse over the last several years. Our lives have become a breathless misery (we all have asthma, including Dominic the cat, and, before he died, Larry the cat as well).

I started doing some research on the matter, and I soon discovered that it wasn’t our imagination that wood smoke is not a good thing to be inhaling. I began to connect with others online who are suffering because of wood burning. It is not a small community. There are a lot of sick and unhappy people out there who are running up big medical bills and who’ve been forced from their homes because of what their neighbors are sending up the chimney. It’s a growing problem.

More people seem to be turning to wood stoves in an attempt to lower their heating costs. Unfortunately, their neighbors wind up subsidizing those heating costs with their own increased medical expenses. (See the 17 Reasons to Ban Wood Burning publicized by the group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment).

Part of the problem is that many people think of wood as something natural. They believe it is environmentally a better choice. However, wood smoke is now thought to be more toxic than cigarette smoke, and the research on it is overwhelming and clear: it kills. Wood smoke exposure is known to cause asthma, heart attacks, strokes, COPD, lung cancer, systemic inflammatory responses and more. It is even now thought to play a role in the development of neurological disorders and dementia.

I’ve become involved with a group of people who are fighting against wood smoke in their communities. An outgrowth of this effort is a new international organization that is being formed to fight wood smoke pollution. It’s still getting going. And I hope to help in whatever way I can.

The EPA’s “Burn Wise” program was developed in partnership with the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, an industry lobbying group that sends its members to training workshops on how to lobby against clean air initiatives. They put out a booklet last year entitled “Tips For Communicating With Congress.” Their mission is to get people to buy more stoves, not to protect health. The problem is that those newer stoves aren’t as clean and green as people have been led to believe. Newer “EPA approved” stoves actually can emit more dioxins, furans and other carcinogens than older stoves. These are some of the most toxic chemicals to which you can be exposed. Their performance also degrades over time. Within a few years, they can emit as much particulate pollution as an older stove. The wording from the piece below comes directly from the EPA’s website, but with my own alterations:

Smoke Wise

A few selected links for more information:

Families for Clean Air

Clean Air Revival/Burning Issues

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

“Woodstoves may be as toxic as cigarettes,” newspaper article

Comments to an article in the BMJ

Note: After the latest round of WordPress updates, the lightbox feature suddenly stopped working. If you click on the pictures, they don’t enlarge. But if you right click, you can get an enlargement in a separate window. I suspect this is going to be one of those things that will take a while to sort out… ugh. 

20 thoughts on “Smoke Gets in My Eyes… and Lungs… and Brain…”

  1. In the 1980’s I lived in the woods (hippie) with only a wood stove for heat. I was never, ever so sick as i was during those smoke filled winters. I ended up with a chronic condition called pleurisy which is usually only found in smokers. I don’t smoke.

    Anytime I get a bad cold now, my pleurisy starts up.

    I have been saying that wood smoke is bad for people for many years now. I am glad to know it is finally getting some attention.

    • Hi Roberta,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your pleurisy. The links I put are only the small tip of a large iceberg of research and info. Basically, any health problem that cigarette smoke causes, woodsmoke also causes. It is very unhealthy. I live in a woodsy place and, as you know, a LOT of people burn in areas like this. People think we have clean air, but we don’t. A dear friend of mine recently died of COPD. I think he’d smoked a bit when he was younger, but in the last several decades his main risk factor was woodsmoke. He didn’t have a car and walked a lot — often for miles — in our smoke-filled air. Our smoky county has a much higher rate of COPD than the rest of the state. He was 64. It’s completely heartbreaking.

      At any rate, I’m glad you don’t have to heat with wood anymore, and I hope you stay well! Thanks for reading my blog. I always enjoy seeing your interesting designs and artwork that you post online. It was nice to see you here.

    • Cathy! So nice to see you here. We are all in this together. I know you’re an artist as well — I really enjoyed looking at your paintings online. Thanks for reading my blog, and for your comment. I thank you too, very much, for all you do to raise awareness about woodsmoke pollution.

  2. We loved our double-burn wood stove at the former house.But we lived in a relatively open area,ie not suburbia, and our climate [then SE Queensland, for benefit of American readers] was far from Nthn California. But suburban backyard fires [incinerators and bonfires] had been banned for some years, probably mainly because of fire dangers in our climate, but certainly with a nod to healthy environments.
    None of which addresses your problems!

    • I wish they’d ban bonfires here — we still have people burning in their backyards, on top of all the wood stoves.

      I must say, when I think of your part of the world, I think of a climate hotter than Hades… ! Thanks for still checking in on me.

  3. Thank you, Paper Chipmunk for teaching people about wood smoke and the harmful effects thereof.

    As a reformed wood burner, I have found it an uphill battle in my attempt to educate people about wood smoke and its deleterious effects on our health and the health of our planet. Sam Harris’s article is one of the best teaching tools I have found. Reading it changed my life. I haven’t used my fireplace in two years and am considering converting it to gas logs. Here’s a link to Harris’s “The Fireplace Delusion.”

    I defy anyone who reads this to try and refute the fact that wood burning needs to be banned.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience, and also for sharing the link to The Fireplace Delusion, which is indeed a very good essay on the topic that I also highly recommend. It’s reassuring to know that there are people out there who did burn wood, but have changed their minds after learning more about it. It gives me hope!

  4. Dear Ellen thanks so much for posting and educating me. I was totally unaware of this. There is a big trend for wood burners in the UK too. You can smell the wood burning some evenings where I live and according to the link you posted, if you can smell it this is not good. My boyfriend has been nagging me to get a wood burner for our house – I have been saying no – my argument has been – I don’t really like them, I think they are a bit of a craze and in 10 years time everyone will be ripping them out.

    Now I am convinced not to get one. I also suffer from mild asthma. Your post has tipped the balance. Thanks :-)

    • Greetings Angela — You made my day, if this post stops you from getting a wood burner! Especially if you have asthma — even mild asthma — you absolutely do not want to be breathing wood smoke. If you have asthmatic neighbors, they’ll also appreciate you not getting a wood burner. The increasing popularity of wood burners in the UK amazes me, given the history of air pollution problems over there. So much was done to clean up the air over the last several decades, and now it seems they are moving back in the wrong direction. It’s sad and frustrating.

      I don’t know if you looked at the link to the BMJ comment above, but you might find it interesting. (“Revised figures show domestic wood burning to be the UK’s largest single source of PM2.5 emissions, 2.4 times greater than all PM2.5 emissions from traffic…”)

      Thanks so much for your comment! If you need any more scary facts to convince your boyfriend he doesn’t want a wood burner, let me know. :-)

    • Thanks for stopping by, Francesca. I think I can believe the smoking rate in that part of the world, alas! A lot of wood burning too. Italy in general has one of the highest rates of household wood burning in all of Europe. One of my dearest friends, who was a heavy smoker, was an American of Sicilian ancestry. Maybe the cigarettes was his way of keeping in touch with the ancestral homeland!


Leave a Comment

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail.